Posts Tagged ‘NEA’

Art War Reinitiated

September 25, 2009

NEA Communications Director Yosi Sergant is the most recent casualty in the reinstated right-wing attack on the arts, according to multiple reports.

Sergant has been accused of promoting a political (pro-Obama, pro-democrat) agenda in NEA project initiatives.  The apparent impetus for the right’s criticism of Sergant was a conference call in which he reportedly suggested the creation of artwork promoting certain policies associated with the present administration, such as healthcare.  In less extreme times it would hardly seem like grounds for dismissal.  Nevertheless, Sergant was relieved of his communications duties and subsequently resigned on September 24th.

This time around, rather than accusing the Endowment of promoting pornography and immorality, right-wing media demagogues have attacked it on political speech grounds.  The main idea, apparently, is that the NEA should not promote the policies of the government of which it is a part, nor discuss them.  Considering the manner in which the previous presidential administration sought to extend its agenda, it’s a hypocritical position at best.

The autonomy of the NEA, and its job of distributing funding to art organizations and artists is vital to supporting the social/cultural dialogue that is the most important component of the arts.  A politically motivated assault on the NEA is no less than an attack on our ability to express that critical speech.

While in some ways, past attacks on the NEA and the arts in general may be interpreted as having been based upon a lack of education in the arts, this situation is not that.  Rather, the aggressors do understand art to the extent that they perceive a power there–critical speech that they seek to subvert. They also want to make a strike on the Obama administration, in any area that they perceive a weakness, and the NEA has proven to be a soft target in the past.  This is clear, but if we want to have an inclusive and progressive society now is the time to take a stand against bullying attacks on the arts.

ABC News:  Yosi Sergant Resigns

Washington Post:  Yosi Sergant Resigns from NEA

Huffington Post: Yosi Sergant Resigns

Chairman Landesman’s statement on the conference call

New NEA Chair; Exit the Dark Ages…maybe

August 8, 2009

Rocco Landesman was sworn in as the new chairperson of the NEA last week and has already begun speaking about the changes he anticipates for the Endowment in an interview with the Times.

In discussing his plans, perhaps among Mr. Landesman most interesting–or controversial–is his intent to alter the allocation priorities for funding.  The present NEA allocation scheme evenly spreads funding around the country, by Congressional district, regardless of the concentration or quality of the projects in a given area.  In contrast, Mr. Landesman plans to allocate funds according to merit, and presumably by extension–providing more funding in areas where artists and arts organizations are concentrated.  In theory, this should bring more funding to the New York area, other cities, and areas where there are concentrations of artists.

The new Chair also speaks of reinstating individual grants, which would be a tremendous benefit for artists, particularly in these times.  Ultimately, the decision to bring back individual artist funding is a legislative issue.  So–artists–now is the time to write to your representatives about the importance of individual grants.

One point that Mr. Landesman makes through the Times piece concerns the denigration of the arts and artists in the society.  In contrast he mentions that, as a candidate, President Obama had both advisers and policies on the arts.  The implication of all of this is that the dark ages of support and funding for artists may be receding just a little, and perhaps, the societal perception of artists has a chance for progress as well.

New Endowment Chairman Sees Arts as Economic Engine, Robin Pogrebin

U.S. Congress, Write Your Representative:

U.S. Senate:

National Endowment for the Arts

Artifactum, May 12, 2009, Obama’s NEA Chair to be Announced

Obama’s NEA Chairman Appointment to be Announced

May 12, 2009

The New York Times reported late Tuesday that Rocco Landesman is expected to be announced as President Obama’s appointee for Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.  Mr. Landesman is a Broadway producer and the president of Jujamcyn Theatres.  He is described as being known for his “energy, intellect, and irreverent…candor” and is anticipated as a strong voice advocating for increased funding for the arts.  

If his appointment is confirmed by Congress, Mr. Landesman will be replacing Dana Goia who stepped down in January.

Retro-Politics: Conservatives Go After the NEA (Again)

February 4, 2009

Right on time, Representative Don Manzullo appeared on the Rachel Maddow show last week, citing funding for the NEA as one reason for his opposition to the economic Stimulus Plan.  As it has been widely reported, he and all Republican house members voted against the plan despite concessions. 

In expressing his opposition, Representative Manzullo resurrected the art-bashing politics of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  During that time, Jesse Helms and conservative groups sought to reduce or eliminate funding for the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) based upon the government agency’s funding of artists like Karen Findley and Andres Serrano.  Helms and his collaborators targeted certain NEA funded artists as purveyors of the offensive, obscene and immoral.  They publicly attacked the financial support of such artists with government funds.

Government funding of the NEA has fluctuated over the last two decades, with a high of around $180 million to a low of about $99 million.  The problem with the NEA isn’t funding, however.  Rather, as self-defense against conservative attacks, the NEA preemptively ceased funding individual artists.  Despite, perhaps, saving the agency from a complete death at the time, it was severely hobbled by that decision.

During the 1980s and ‘90s artists and their supporters fought back against the conservative condemnation.  The attack on the NEA was, rightfully, described as an attempt at censorship.  The First Amendment ensures that the government will not enact laws that limit the freedom of speech, and the contemporaneous argument was that the reduction or elimination of funding was tantamount to government limitation of speech.  Conservatives and others that supported the attack claimed that the reduction of funding was a withholding; not an affirmative limitation of speech.  However, since the NEA self-limited itself, the Constitutional question was avoided–that of Congressional allocation of funding being equivalent to a law that limits speech.

However, the specific goal sought, at least in the public sphere, was the silencing of artists.  Anti-NEA conservatives claimed that this denial of grant opportunities was not censorship either because the artists could still speak–they just wouldn’t get paid for it.  Superficially this may be true, but most artists struggle for funding, so in fact the lack of public money very likely did prevent some artworks from being created.

 A side issue is that of obscenity.  Singling out a few artists from the many that received NEA grants, the NEA opposition claimed that obscene and offensive artwork was being funded by the agency.  In other forums, e.g., the courts, the definition of obscenity has seen progress over the years, changing from an I-know-it-when-I-see-it perspective, to one that accounts for potential, even if tiny, social, cultural or scientific value.  The NEA artists that were attacked never received the benefit of court review based upon the legal definition of obscenity, but rather were condemned based upon sensationalistic descriptions and misrepresentations about the purpose of their work.

In the context of art theory and criticism, artwork such as this should be evaluated on the success of the speech that it is producing.  A proper question might be whether Findley’s work evokes a feminist message or whether Serrano’s Piss Christ is a well-enunciated statement of religion and physicality, or just a gimmick.  Approaching these works from the perspective of “obscenity” is simply erroneous, simplistic, and serves only to sensationalize and politicize speech.

The NEA, as it exists today, is less than a shadow of its former self.  It exists only to fund groups and community projects, which are certainly worthy, but for purely political–speech based–reasons, it does not fund individual artists at all.  By not funding individuals, the NEA removes itself from making potentially politically reverberating decisions.  The agency censors itself.  In the past, artists valued the NEA, not just because it was a source of funds, but because it was non-discriminatory in allocating its grants, thereby truly promoting the progress of the arts (and in consequence, socio-cultural discourse).

The NEA is still hedging its position today.  On the NEA website, the Visual Arts grant information page states, “The Arts Endowment is committed to advancing and preserving the work of contemporary visual artists that reflects serious and exceptional aesthetic investigation.”   (Emphasis added).  The main grant page states that, “In most areas, funding is limited to organizations.”  The Art Projects area, which in the past would have encompassed individual artists, lists several main categories for which grant applications may be entered, including: “Access  to Artistic Excellence…organization; Challenge America:  Reaching Every Community Fast-Track Review Grants; and Learning in the Arts…organization.”  (Emphasis added).

Despite the position taken by the anti-NEA conservatives, there are probably many reasons why artists were targeted, then and now.  I believe that in using anecdotal information only, it is reasonable to state that very few, if any, artists have the same political leanings as Jesse Helms, Representative Manzullo and their conservative colleagues.  Attacks on the NEA are not only based upon superficial moral, and potentially religious differences, but they are attacks based upon political objectives.  Few NEA artists are likely to be Rep. Manzullo’s constituents, and based upon history, he may believe that he can score points with his actual constituents through this method.  Therefore, the attacks on NEA, in the 1990s or now, can also be seen as an attempt to create cultural divisiveness for political gain.

On his website, Representative Manzullo, who represents Northern Illinois, has posted his grievances with the stimulus package, citing that NEA funding is “non-job creating.”

“The non-job creating spending in this bill includes:

[item] a)  $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.”

( January 29,2009)

As supporters have pointed out, artists, in fact, do work and funding to the NEA does create jobs.  This seems particularly true given the present configuration of the NEA, which would tend to allocate funding to community groups and organizations.  Personnel will be needed to organize events, teach classes, usher audience member to their seats, build backdrops, etc., etc.  In turn, particularly in regards to performance-based art and visual art exhibitions, cafes and restaurants also benefit by the presence of  local art events and the patronage of attendees.  If individual artists were able to receive grants they would, as probable conditions of the grant, spend the full allocation on producing artwork by purchasing supplies and services–which of course, puts money directly into the local economy–and produces jobs.  In turn, individual artists also tend to work with community organizations and galleries, which also creates audiences that are likely to buy an extra cup of coffee or have a meal nearby.  NEA funding creates jobs.

It would be more than a shame if we let retro-politics determine how we perceive the funding of the arts.  Rather than limiting NEA funding, this is clearly an area that benefits local economies.  It also, just as importantly, advances the socio-cultural discussion.  The stimulus bill’s provision for additional funding for the NEA should be supported, but artists and art patrons should also lobby the NEA to relax its self-imposed restrictions and once again promote free expression.



National Endowment for the Arts 

Update 2/18/2009:

The Stimulus Bill, signed by President Obama yesterday, ultimately retained $50 million in funding for the  NEA.

N.E.A. Press Release

History and Text of the Stimulus Bill is available on the Library of Congress site here.

Additional Resources:

To Encourage Great Art, Help Great Artists by Raymond J. Learsy, 2002, NY Times



Art, the Easiest Target

January 28, 2009

The Brandeis University story has been gathering steam in the last few days, appearing for a time late last night as the lead story on the NY Times website, photo and all. As noted earlier this week (as an update to When Museums Sell Art) the university decided to close the Rose Art Museum and sell all of the works therein. Within hours of the announcement, petitions appeared online and blogs began to call for action. The Rose Art Museum is known for its collection, a tight survey of American contemporary art. Much of the museum’s artwork was purchased during the relatively early years of big-name artists when the work was relatively cheap. It appears that the trustees did not foresee the public reaction to the radical act of closing an entire institution and splitting up a notable collection of cultural objects.

A brief flashback to New York’s Guiliani administration…In 1999 the Brooklyn Museum, now rather famously, hosted the Sensation exhibit from the Saatchi Collection which included Chris Ofili’s Madonna image. Ofili’s artwork incorporated elephant dung, which in the artist’s perspective was a signifier of esteem, rather than disparagement of the primary subject matter. But that is really besides the point. Then mayor Guiliani, apparently because of lack of knowledge about the specific artwork, general ignorance about art, arrogance, or all of the above, perhaps along with political motivations, sought to remove Ofili’s work from view. The museum refused. Guiliani cut off government funding and cancelled the museum’s lease as retribution. (Funding was later restored by the courts and the lease was not cancelled).

In the context of the mayor’s involvement, this attempted action could be seen as a government intrusion into free speech, but besides that issue, art was an easy target. Perhaps he was bolstered by the reduction of NEA funding subsequent to political attacks on the agency based upon the alleged offensiveness or obscenity of the artwork made by artists that received its (nondiscriminatory) funding. From the perspective of artists, the NEA has never fully recovered as the beneficial organization that it once was.

However, the artists and art patrons of New York did not go quietly and the attack on the Brooklyn Museum resulted in an outpouring of speech and action in defense of the museum. Prior to the incident the Brooklyn Museum was not particularly known as the most challenging or eminent of New York’s art museums. Guiliani was not successful and the museum’s reputation and status was ultimately burnished by the attention (and the subsequent settlement). It didn’t, however, stop Guiliani from trying the same move, also unsuccessful, on Renée Cox’ Yo Mama’s Last Supper at the same institution.

The trustees of Brandeis University are not working as punitive agents, but they appear to have underestimated the reaction to closing a premiere institution like the Rose. No doubt that the university, as one of the many victims of the alleged Madoff scheme is in dire financial condition. In such situation, the arts are inevitably selected as the first neck on the chopping block. Artists and art patrons are, unfortunately, able to predict this with some regularity. There was a time when art classes, for example, were common in the public schools. By the mid 1980s they, along with music programs, were the first to be cut from curriculum in times of financial stress. This says quite a bit where we, as a culture, perceive the quality of value to exist.

A loss of the arts, whether in terms of access to recognized works of stature or in the form of educational instruction, is a loss to society and its future. Art is communication. When people, especially younger people, are not exposed to the arts, a vital experience is denied. A good education in the arts, whether formal or informal, can teach an individual to consider issues in a multi-dimensional perspective, formulate a critical analysis, and in consequence, make decisions that are well considered–in whatever context they may be made. The experience of art also provides lessons in cultural understanding, history, and human perception that are otherwise less accessible. In times like these particularly, we need to encourage this type of learning and experiencing, rather than curtailing it.

Brandeis is beginning the process of determining how to sell off its unique collection. A significant source of the Rose Museum’s funding for art purchases was a trust fund, along with donations of artwork. It is unclear as to whether the donations were made solely by collectors or if some donations may have been made by the artists themselves. Conditions in some of the donation agreements may serve as impediments to the sale of certain individual pieces. Regardless, the biggest impediment may be the public response to this nearly unprecedented action by an educational institution with such significant cultural holdings. Potential private buyers of the collection are not at fault, but it will be a major loss to the community, Brandeis’ students, and the general public if the collection is no longer accessible as a whole.


Brandeis’ Press Release announcing closure of the Rose Art Museum

Insider Higher Ed January 27, 2009: Brandeis to Sell All of Its Art

The Rose Art Museum

A compilation of articles about the Brooklyn Museum versus Giuliani debacle: ArtsJournal

Brooklyn Museum Receives Support in Legal Battle With Mayor, NY Times, October 7, 1999

Brooklyn Museum: Businessweek, October 7, 1999

Brooklyn Museum:, October 2, 1999